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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Helmut Walcha, Chorale Preludes 2

Helmut Walcha (1907-1991) wrote so many chorale preludes for solo organ, Naxos is planning to release four volumes. Judging by Chorale Preludes, Volume 2 (Naxos 8.572911) with Walcha student Wolfgang Rubsam at the keys, this will be well worth the effort.

Walcha grew up in Leipzig and learned much from the example of J. S. Bach. The Chorale Preludes have a contrapuntal flair, thrilling dynamics, and an architectural clarity about them that show the influence of the master yet also have Walcha's dramatic inventive compositional personality stamped upon them.

Like Reger's contrapuntal writing for solo violin, Walcha's Preludes extend the influence of Bach with an immediacy that shows much more than imitation at work.

The Volume Two bears up very well after many hearings. Rubsam does the music full justice and the spectacular sound will give your ears and your system a good workout.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Lei Liang, Verge, Tremors of a Memory Chord, Chamber and Orchestral Music

For a composer with imagination and a sharp ear for synchronicities and contrasts, personal roots can be very fertile ground as a launching pad for startlingly fresh new music. Chinese-born American composer Lei Liang (b. 1972) serves as an excellent example, certainly as heard on his new recording of Chamber and Orchestral Music [Verge, Tremors of a Memory Chord] (Naxos 8.572839).

In point of fact the first two compositions on the disk, Verge for 18 solo strings (2009) and Aural Hypothesis for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and vibraphone (2010), are very fine late high modernist works, sonorously strong and vivid in the use of typical western chamber instrumentation. Other than a kind of spatially declamatory tendency there would be little on the strictly musical front to declaim "Chinese roots" unless you were already looking for them.

The last two works are another matter. Five Seasons (2010) was scored for the traditional Chinese stringed instrument called the pipa, plus string quartet. And you most certainly hear in the pipa part a Chinese classical element. Interestingly though, since traditional Chinese music can have an intensely sonorous focus, the common ground between the quartet and the pipa is moving yet somehow logical. It's music that manages to be quite modern in impact, yet makes ample room for the rhythmic and intervalic idiom of the traditional pipa.

Tremors of a Memory Chord (2011) goes even further, in scoring the music for piano and grand Chinese orchestra. In this case in is the piano part that bridges the East-West gap most fully, in ways that make perfect sense. Then again the Chinese orchestra is called upon to engage in sonorous abstractions that both partake of tradition yet are abstract and avant garde in overall syntax and trajectory. In use of space and sound, calm and agitation, solo and tutti, the two traditions are not nearly as far apart as one might think, at least in Liang's singular musical vision. And the whole thing is quite exciting to hear as well.

It is all very convincing to me. The music itself, the performances and the sound staging all make for a compelling program. Anyone with a sense of musical adventure should respond to this recording. It gives a mini-portrait of Lei Liang's striking music and I hope serves as the beginning of many such appearances to the music loving public.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Kyzysztof Meyer, String Quartets Nos, 7, 10 and 13

Polish composer Krzysztof Meyer (b. 1943) writes string quartets of architectural complexity and high modernist purity. The Wieniawski String Quartet and Naxos issue Volume Three of the complete output this month, String Quartets Nos. 7, 10 and 13 (Naxos 8.573001), and it has very much to commend it.

No. 13 is his latest to date and along with Nos. 7 and 10, there is very much excellent music to experience. Like Bartok and Carter before him, Meyer views the configuration as appropriate for very serious and advanced sonorities and the Wieniawski Quartet bring the salient import of these works to the recorded medium with the precision and passion they demand.

These are great abstract constructions, at once intimate and multivalent. They are the sort of works that take concentrated effort to assimilate fully over a long period of time. The reward is a modern sort of sublimity.

This volume gives you an essential listen to Meyer at his most advanced. He is a composer of today that should be heard, and this is a great program for you to begin doing that.

Friday, December 14, 2012

John McCabe, Visions, Choral Music

It may be that composer-pianist John McCabe is better known for his work with other configurations, but after many listens to the newly released Visions (Naxos 8.573053) his choral music is imprinted firmly on my musical thought waves. Surely here he carries on as a most distinguished embodiment of the English modern choral tradition, a worthy successor to Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten.

More than half the album album presents the BBC Singers (under David Hill) a capella. For the rest they are joined by organist Iain Farrington. They sound very good, full and center-on throughout.

The works cover a very broad period, from 1966 to 2008. They range from the brief Marian Carols to the rather long Mangan Triptych. Four of the works enjoy their world premiere recording in this collection.

McCabe seems to have a natural affinity to choral writing. The works have great "singability" and beautifully wrought part writing, from modern contrapuntal to stunning harmonic blocks that sound especially well.

This is a recording that should bring much pleasure to lovers of the choral arts, Anglophiles, and anyone who wishes to explore some gems of our time.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Alexander Berne & the Abandoned Orchestra, Self Referentials, Vols. 1 & 2

Some music hangs together so distinctly, yet is composed of such unexpected elements, that one can imagine oneself in another world with the music being what the inhabitants have worked out over a long period of time, an imaginary ethnic music, an imaginary classical music.

That's the feeling I get listening to Alexander Berne & the Abandoned Orchestra's Self-Referentials, Vols. 1 & 2 (Innova 838).

In his latest 2-CD set Alexander Berne creates music that lays out so organically yet is so unexpected yet evocative that it sounds like another world produced it.

Self Referentials is a series of interrelated soundscapes that so skillfully interweave their various elements, electronically enhanced and straightforward instrumental and vocal sound colors that have pulse and trajectory and come in and out of the total sound in such striking ways, one has to commend Maestro Berne for his composition-assembly-mix in technical as well as musical terms.

Ultimately what counts is the narrative quality of the music and its striking overall affect. It is the sort of music that beckons you to turn the many intriguing twists and turns in the musical unfolding into a wordless story, a journey in a soundscape that is filled with so many interrelated sound events that it literally carries you away.

Alexander Berne composes music that is new in very original terms, yet sounds like it could be a thousand years old. It's sound poetry of a high sort, apparently a product of our world. That is very good news. You should hear this, most definitely.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Gabriel Faure, Quintettes Avec Piano, Eric Le Sage, Quatuor Ebene

I spent years parceling off Gabriel Faure as "that stylistic link between Franck and Debussy." Not that he isn't. But there is so much to his output in itself that the categorization doesn't help a great deal in experiencing the music.

That is most certainly true of the Quatuor Ebene and Eric Le Sage's performances of the Quartettes Avec Piano op. 89 & 115 (Outhere Alpha 602).

The music has depth and the performers give us exemplary versions, emotive and plastic without resorting to histrionics. The op. 89 has impassioned complexity, the op. 115 a sublimity, a restrained lyrical flow and movement within a fertile melodic unfolding. They both bear the mark of Faure's lyric brilliance.

The performances are excellent. Le Sage and Quatuor Ebene achieve a balance and at times a frisson that is high-level and beautifully detailed. Very much recommended.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Christiane Karg, Amoretti

Coloratura soprano is a phenomenon where there are no half-way marks. Either the singer is wonderful, or it doesn't work. The young German soprano Christiane Karge has all that it takes, and shows us in her release of arias by Mozart, Gluck and Gretry, Amoretti (Berlin Classics 0300389BC).

The disk is made doubly interesting by the inclusion of arias from early Mozart works, the nearly forgotten Gretry and some choice Gluck, including three premiere recordings.

The orchestra Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen sounds just fine, but of course this is Ms. Karg's day in the sun, and she responds accordingly. Her voice is a wonder. No matter the mood of the aria, she responds with convincing dramatic inflection, a vibrant, angelic tone, and perfectly nuanced phrasing.

It is clear that Christiane Karg is headed for stardom in vocal circles. This recital catches her in great form, doing music I am very glad to hear. Bravo!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Andy Malloy, Paper Clips, Works for Trombone

I haven't particularly gone out of my way to look for modern classical solo trombone albums. I remember a good one on the DGG Avant Garde Series (now alas gone) and a Berio Sequenza for trombone, then Stuart Dempster did a lively one for the New World label. Otherwise, not very much.

So Andy Malloy's Paper Clips (Navona 5879), a two-CD set devoted to music for trombone solo, with or without piano accompaniment by Karolina Rojahn, is a most welcome addition.

Mr. Malloy is a fine exponent of the trombone with a nice tone and chops. He tackles seven works/suites by composers not all familiar to me: Adrienne Albert, Gernot Wolfgang, John Steinmetz, Steven J. Williams, Stephen Yip, Jason Barabba, and Rick Lane.

This is not a high-modernist, pointillist hits and jabs sort of anthology. The works vary from jazz inflected, to sound-oriented, to recitation and trombone commentary, to straightforward contemporary.

Throughout there is the trombone artistry of Malloy and some of the excitement of the brand new. There's a good deal to be had on the set, so if you respond to the sound of the trombone of this century, I think you will find this to your liking.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Haydn-Brahms String Quartets, Danish String Quartet

Having noted other day in this space that since Beethoven's late quartets, the string quartet has often become the preferred medium for composers to extend their musical language to the limits of their imagination, I now listen to a new recording of the Danish String Quartet doing Haydn and Brahms (BR Klassik 8553264) and reflect a little on that thought. What was most certainly true of Bartok and Carter wasn't especially the case with Haydn and perhaps not Brahms either. Not that either's quartets aren't first-rate examples of the art. But the composers perhaps didn't view the configuration as a privileged place to communicate their most advanced ideas. They engaged with the form for some of the finest examples nonetheless. It's just that they didn't tend to be "heavy" about it. That's my impression.

In the case of the Haydn Quartet in D No. 63 op 64 No 5, a part of the Danish Quartet's release, it is music of sheer delight (so to speak) with allusions and commentaries on Viennese dance forms and popular music. It goes out of its way not to be serious, yet in the process produces a balanced work that is in no way "light." It is not ponderous either. But it is Haydn at his infectious best.

The Brahms String Quartet in A minor op. 52 No. 2 is a good pairing with the Haydn, because it too is high spirited without being unsubstantial.

The Danish String Quartet does a terrific job with these quartets. The group has achieved the considerable ability to vary the timbre of each of the instruments in cases where they wish to articulate clearly the importance and multi-voiced distinction of several parts--it's especially heard in the Haydn but it is true of the Brahms as well. Then they of course can properly and melifluously blend as one in passages that call for that. The point is that the quartet has an great sense of structure that comes through as extraordinarily articulated performances.

Their sound is ravishing and well recorded. And the music has a beautiful sense of proportion and definition. These are near-benchmark performances, uplifting to hear, and highly recommended of course.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Jorg Widmann, Elegie

Jorg Widmann is a present-day composer with expansive concepts and an orchestral mastery of the panoramic-modern virtually unmatched by any living composer. I know that may be a lot to say of someone but I feel convinced of that after listening a number of times to a new disk devoted to his music, Elegie (ECM New Series 2110 476 3309).

The disk contains two major orchestral works and one for clarinet and piano. Christoph Poppen conducts the Deutsche Radio Philharmonic for the Messe fur grosches Orchester and the Elegie fur Klarinette und Orchester. The composer himself plays clarinet on the latter and joins his instrument with Heinz Holliger's piano for the chamber Funf Bruchstucke.

The Messe follows in general outline what a Mass might be for choir and orchestra (sometimes down to the words the choir would ordinarily sing), only conceives of the entire work instrumentally. It is a massive dramatic symphonic work that very deftly engages the assemblage of instruments with an acute sense of sound color and affect. It is a four-dimensional work, performed and recorded with the very high standards one comes to expect in the New Series. It is music that has a very expanded harmonic sense and uses that and orchestrational brilliance to achieve a memorable result.

The Funf Bruchstucke explore clarinet-piano sonorities in miniature with five very brief segments that show another side to Widmann's lucid sense of aural poetics.

Finally the Elegie joins Widmann's clarinet with the orchestra for another masterful work of expressive color. The clarinet part makes its sober but very avant virtuoso presence felt via a very musical use of extended sounds from harmonic double stops to quarter tones. The orchestra responds with some extraordinary timbres and atmospheric eloquence.

Widmann shows on Elegie that he is one of the composers of brilliance today. He extends the wide open avant-guard sound-color tradition into the present day with his own extraordinarily creative scores. These are wonderful to hear. Any student of high modernism should take this music to heart. And modernist aficionados in general will find this CD essential listening.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Eric Salzman, The Nude Paper Sermon; Wiretap

When avant garde classical was at a peak in exposure and was crossing-over somewhat to the rock crowd, budget classical labels, the Nonesuch series being a prime example, were devoting some effort to release representative avant and electronic works at a price everyone could afford. $1.99 was the going rate at New York area chains for an LP of this type, and I and others found it a good way to get exposed to new music.

One of the albums to come out in the Nonesuch series around 1970 was Eric Salzman's The Nude Paper Sermon and it was one of the more unusual of the works to get mass release on vinyl. I found my way to a copy at the time and spend many hours puzzling over its contents.

Now it and its follow up Wiretap are once again available as a two CD reissue on a Labor set (7092).

The Nude Paper Sermon, as I listen again after so long, strikes me as belonging wholly to its period. A narrator, in a lengthy and sometimes rapid-fire monologue, personifies a sort of voice of the media, pontificating in a disjointed and sometimes surreal manner on anything and everything while an acoustic-electric collage of Babel crowd voices, a Renaissance style vocal group, noise, Boschian effects from a modern hell, all combine to make a soundscape that is both funny, mind expanding and, especially at the time, terrifying. It is one of the better multi-stranded collage pieces of the era, at the same time leaves you with an acute and aesthetically satisfying portrayal of a contemporary world so overloaded with messages and input that meaning is in short supply.

Wiretap has a smaller-scale character, with a series of shorter works: voice pieces, an interesting duet between Elise Rose on vocals and Stanley Silverman on acoustic guitar, and a collaged electro-acoustic work of found sounds. Not all of it is at the level of the first album but like the first it captures the experimental excitement of the era, some of the excesses of expression the era produced, and the urgent impetus to create relevant works that somehow commented on the vitality and critical impact of the passing scene.

I am not sure how the post-'60s ears of most listeners would hear this music-collage style. Anyone who lived through the era will probably find it interesting; those tracing the lineage of text-sound works and acoustic-electric collage will find this volume of importance. Anyone who had these records back then, well you know what's on them! Salzman was an important voice of the era. You may find yourself exasperated with the contents at times, I imagine, but a sympathetic listen will give you something of what it was like to experience the era--exhilaration, disgust, euphoria, experimental wonder, zen madness....

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Lock and Key: New Chamber Works by Pender, Salvage, Perttu, Hawkins

New Music comes along in many shapes and sizes these days. The Lock and Key (Navona 5881) anthology of chamber works by relatively unknown composer illustrates that rather well.

Scott Pender's "In the Time Before" is a chamber ensemble playing a melifluous kind of minimalism that has the motor-insistency of a Steve Reich with expansive melodic lyricism on top via strings and sometimes flute. It goes its own way with the melodic material and in this way captures a bit of originality while being pretty snugly fit into a typical Reichian minimal mode.

R. David Salvage turns to a more modern harmonic, non- pulsating expressivism to begin his nine-movement "Albumleaves" for solo piano. It goes from there into a sort of neo-classicism with fugal counterpoint dominating here, then a chorale-like piece there, more expressionistic pieces, a pulse-oriented, non-formulaic series of shifting figures, and more neo-classicism, this time of such an elementary, primal nature I am tempted to dub it lyric simplissimo. This is appealing music to while away an afternoon. Nothing terribly profound but quite nice to hear.

Daniel Perttu's "Gloamin': A Fantasy for Flute and Piano" is more dramatic in a sort of romantic-impressionistic way, with the flute part soaring expressively against a shimmer of shifting piano tonality.

Finally there is Malcolm Hawkins "Bonjour Ma Petite" for chamber ensemble. Five miniature movements hold forth in a lyrical diatonicism that I am inclined once again to dub simplissimo. It's very straightforward music of a naive, home-spun sort and it charms without making claims to profundity. There is a sort of vernacular small-town feel to this suite at times, but it in no way panders thereby. And the melodic-thematic content becomes less naive at times and a bit more "sophisticated," but the simple charm of the music persists.

There you have it, four composers working on tonal grounds with their own stylistic concerns. This is music that pleases without asking a great deal in return. It is music of a generally light-hearted sort. It is not pretentious music and the performances reflect that matter-of-factness of the compositions well. If that sounds good to you, then you will no doubt find this to your liking.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Miguel Kertsman, Amazonia

Brazilian-American composer Miguel Kertsman may not be on everyone's radar at the moment, but the disk Amazonia (Gramola 98959) gives a good sampling of his early orchestral music and should increase his exposure among cognoscenti.

There are three substantial works on the disk, all performed with good presence and dash by the Bruckner Orchester Linz under Dennis Russell Davies.

I suppose you could say that, in the early period at any rate, Kertsman's music is pretty lushly neo-romantic, but in a post-Villa-Lobian way. The Chamber Symphony No 1, "Acorda!" has a vocalise for soprano that reminds one a little of the latter.

Sinfonia Concertante Brasileira for Flute and Orchestra has a longer three-movement trajectory, a pretty brilliant flute part (well played by Wolfgang Schultz), and the full breadth of orchestral drama with a definite touch of exotica and expressive writing that projects nicely. The Largo is ravishing and the final Rondo "The Dumb Donkey Called Jackass" has a humorous lumbering quality that appeals while also reminding a tad of the Villa-Lobos of Bachianas Brasileiras. It was written in 1987 to protest the wanton over-development of the Amazonian rainforest.

Amazonia is a fairly short symphonic poem with more of the evocative orchestral expressivity one experiences in the other works. One cannot hear this music without being reminded of Villa-Lobos's Forest of the Amazon, and not in some imitative, derivative way. There is a genetic relation between Maestros Villa-Lobos and Kertsman that, at least in Kertsman's early period, brings him into the picture as a successor, an extender of a Brazilian orchestral heritage.

The music will most certainly appeal. And Davies gives it his careful enthusiasm. It's very likable music and makes me want to hear Kertsman's more recent works.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Osias Wilenski, La Leyenda del Kakuy

La Leyenda del Kakuy (Navona 5882) is a kind of grab-bag of the music of Osias Wilenski. It contains pieces for solo violin, solo clarinet, solo bassoon and solo piano, and the title work, a musical telling of the Argentinian legend that is in some ways similar to "the Ant and the Grasshopper."

"La Leyenda del Kakuy" has seven short movements, is scored for six chamber players and has a kind of multi-voiced labyrinthine feel. It is quite decently performed by Tapestry East under Ovidiu Marinescu.

The "Sonata for Solo Violin" features an adventurous, well-thought series of movements that engage the violin in idiomatically expressive channels. It manages to sound modern in a romantic sort of way and would not be out of place among similar solo works from the 20th century by Reger and Hindemith, without sounding like either.

The other works have their interest as well. I would now most certainly want to hear larger-scale Wilenski. This one may not be essential but it is quite nice. And Wilenski has a voice.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Quadrants: Modern String Quartets

The string quartet has become one of the primary vehicles for "serious" chamber music. Dating from the example of Beethoven's late quartets, it has become a medium in which a composer might express his most "advanced" music. For those seeking "light classical" fare, it is generally not the place to look.

Fittingly then, the new anthology release of modern string quartets, Quadrants (Navona 5883), is filled with music that takes itself rather seriously, as well it should.

Here we have six quartets played by four groups, the Boston String Quartet, the New England String Quartet, the Moravian Philharmonic Chamber Players and the Boston Composers String Quartet.

The music ranges from Virgil Thomson's first quartet to various modernisms by Marie Incontrera, Michael G. Cunningham, Ulf Grahn, and two by Alan Beeler. These latter are names not well known but the music has solid construction, inspiration and bears repeated listening.

The recorded sound is lively, the performances exacting and expressive and the whole package something a lover of modern chamber works will most certainly appreciate.

I wont hold it against anyone that this was the CD I was listening to when I lost power (turned out for six days) during Hurricane Sandy. It wasn't the music. . . was it? No. It was the wind. I must say though, the music went with the wind pretty well while it lasted. That is saying something for the music, and I suppose the wind!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Stile Antico, Passion & Resurrection, Music inspired by Holy Week

One factor about early sacred vocal music that doesn't cease to fascinate my ears: generally the rhythmic structure of the music follows the text, so that meter is plastic, often irregular. Couple that with the intricate counterpoint and the sort of very pliable harmonic progressions that come across as the result of overlapping contrapuntal parts, and there is the recipe for music that feels liberating when listening from the present-day position.

Of course there's much more than that about early music that makes it interesting. And so when I turn to the latest offering by the a cappella vocal ensemble of Stile Antico, Passion & Resurrection, Music inspired by Holy Week (Harmonia Mundi), I find much to interest me, in fine performances.

It's a disk of English Renaissance choral works by some of the masters: Gibbons, Tallis, De Lassus, Taverner, Byrd, etc. England was producing some marvelous composers and music flourished.

For an added touch there are two settings of the poem "Woefully Arrayed". A period setting by Cornysh and then one written recently for Stile Antico by McCabe. It's a contrast that spices up the disk nicely.

This is state-of-the-art early music choral performance and all who love the period will find it of great interest, I would think.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Kristian Bezuidenhout, Freiburger Barockorchester and Petra Müllejans, Mozart, Piano Concertos K.453 & 482

Think of Mozart's "Jupiter Symphony" as performed by Bruno Walter and a large modern day symphony orchestra. It has a powerful sound and it is not hard to imagine its place alongside the early-middle period symphonies of Beethoven. Do that with more early, more typically classical period Mozart and you get that sound as well, at least in the tutti, fortissimo passages, but perhaps something is lost? Even in later Mozart?

That's what occurs to me listening to pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, and the Freiburger Barockorchester under Petra Müllejans performing Mozart's Piano Concertos K.453 & 482 (Harmonia Mundi). For the recording Kristian plays on a period instrument; the orchestra is not large and they too seem to be playing period instruments.

The sound of the piano is more delicate, that of the orchestra more nuanced. With a smaller number of strings the wind parts stand out in greater detail and offset the strings more completely. The tutti sections can still be powerful and are, but the balanced has shifted. A recording such is this one, which is very good by the way, helps you envision the classical period and Mozart's "sweeter" qualities in a very different light.

The two piano concertos sound perhaps more as Mozart heard them in his head when he wrote them. And the classical era sounds less like a path to romanticism than a musical style perfect unto itself in its own way. Paradoxically, an excellent period instrument performance like this one sounds more modern than the amassed forces of the romantic orchestra doing Promethean battle with the soloist on his hard and louder sounding modern piano. That's not to say that we should stop enjoying or listening to present-era performances of classical era music by larger orchestras of modern instruments. That would be foolish.

Kristian Bezuidenhout and company have given us a fascinating window into another era, another Mozart, and done it with full poetic expression. Bezuidenhout is a wonder for Mozart and the Freiburger Barockorchester match the pianist's sympathetic sonarities with artistic grace. Bravo to this one!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Edison Denisov, Au plus haut des cieux

Russian composer Edison Denisov (1929-1996) made an impact on the west with a number of prominent releases (most notably one with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic) in the '60s, then more or less disappeared from our radar. His music was sometimes experimental (as typical of the times), always contemporary in the most vital sense.

He continued on. Daniel Kawka and Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain, with Brigitte Peyré, soprano, for the vocal works, have gathered a fascinating grouping of this later compositions in Au plus haut des cieux (Harmonia Mundi).

The CD includes performances of "Symphonie de chambre no. 1 pour orchestre de chambre" (1982), "Symphonie de chambre no. 2 pour orchestre de chambre " (1994), "Au plus haut des cieux: cycle vocal pour soprano et orchestre de chambre" (1987) and "Cinq romances d'Anna Akhmatova pour soprano et ensemble" (1994).

It turns out that as his music matured, he developed a fully balanced style that had striking originality. His writing for orchestra became rather extraordinarily lucid, both very liquid, flowing, and impactfully orchestrated. Brigitte Peyré has genuine presence on the works for soprano and the Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain under Kawka turn in a detailed, sonically stunning set of performances.

If, like me, you are not very familiar with the later Denisov, or even if you are, this release comes as a revelation. He was a composer of the sublime. This must be heard!

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge, Nine Lessons & Carols

For those for whom Black Friday (in the States) is but a more and more hysterical outcome of economic considerations taking over the holiday season, there are antidotes.

The wonderful King's College Choir of Cambridge has a Christmas Eve tradition dating from 1918. It was decided then that the Christmas Eve service would alternate brief readings from biblical passages describing the Christmas Story with carols appropriate to that part of the story. They always begin with the carol "Once in Royal David's City" and they always sing a new specially commissioned carol for that year.

Christmas music connoisseurs have long appreciated the broadcasts yearly and a number of beautiful recordings have been made of the choir in performance on Christmas Eve. The latest is of the full service including the readings, and a gathering of the latest carol commissions, by the new King College Choir label.

Nine Lessons & Carols (King's College KGS0001) fills two CDs with the entire Lessons service and carols. It was recorded recently with present director Stephen Cleobury at the helm.

It is the choir in its goose-bump glory. The new carols are a refreshing addition, the traditional carols will warm your heart and the readings will put it all in context. It is a sonically alive recording that you may well want to make a part of your Christmas tradition. It is extraordinarily beautiful.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Valery Afanassiev, Schubert, Moments musicaux

I read, long ago, a critic in the Sunday Times who I have forgotten the name of, saying something to the effect that "the more familiar we all are with a piece of music, the slower the tempo of the performance." I've tried to track that thought in listening to various performances over the years since I first read the article, and I must say that it isn't always true. Yet it is an interesting idea. Sometimes performers will linger a bit over music we know and love, sometimes they will increase the tempo of something to make it more exciting.

One thing that great performers will do with a well-loved body of music is to speak the music with their own personal voice, so to say. So they may indeed linger over passages, vary the attack, take some movements at a faster pace than is the norm, apply rubato in non-standard ways, articulate phrases with a special touch, in general bring out the music in ways that make us hear it anew.

That is what pianist Valery Afanassiev has done wonderfully on his new recording of Schubert's Moments musicaux and the Piano Sonata D. 850 (ECM New Series 2215).

Like a great actor will make a well known line from Shakespeare speak to us emphatically by using his own voice and inflection in a special way, Maestro Afanassiev brings out some of Schubert's most melodically unforgettable music by giving loving attention to every phrase, by giving life to the music with his own voice.

It is a marvelously poetic performance to be had on these tracks. He makes the piano speak with extraordinary, movingly beautiful eloquence. It is the sort of performance perhaps that can only come out of living with the music over a long period of time, of coming to know and love the music intimately, of hearing something in every phase and bringing all of it to our ears with an absorbed attention that makes it all new and wonderful. This is a must-not-miss for all Schubert lovers.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Jacques Charpentier, 72 Etudes karnatiques pour piano, Schafer

We live in a kind of renaissance of recorded sounds. More than 100 years of recordings are potentially available to the listener, and for nearly half of those years recording technology flourished so that most recordings have good fidelity. In the digital era the recording of works and composers less familiar to most listeners has continued at an accelerated pace, so that today we can routinely make discoveries that might have been nearly impossible in the past.

Jacques Charpentier and his 72 Etudes karnatiques pour piano (Genuin 12257 3-disks) is a good example. The composer is still with us (b 1933), happily. And such a gargantuan set of etudes! In some earlier period this music in complete form would not have been so easy to hear, except if one bought the printed edition of the work, assuming it was available, and played it through for oneself.

Of course it would not much matter if the music was tepid or mediocre. In the hands of Michael Schafer on this recording, it is far from that.

This is piano music of great complexity. There is in the melodic structure and rhythmic figuration something that might be traced back to a Carnatic influence, but primarily this is modern pianism that stands on its own. It owes something to the mature Messiaen for its use of motives and declamatory phrasings that sometimes seem slightly birdcall-like. For the rest it is an extraordinarily interesting and original, accomplished group of etudes that bears deep listening.

Michael Schafer does the music full justice. He has mastered the difficulties and presents the music to us in a fully confident, expressive way. There is much musical treasure to mine in the 72 etudes and it will be a revelation for those for whom modern advanced sounds are both sufficient in themselves and necessary as a regular listening habit. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Peter Maxwell Davies, Symphony No. 6, Royal Philharmonic

The Peter Maxwell Davies conducts his symphonic output series continues with a new reissue of his Symphony No. 6 (1996) (Naxos 8.572352). As in the symphonies immediately preceding this one (covered on these pages), the soft-focus orchestral palette of color continues, but this time it often gives way to moments of impassioned turbulence and adagio passages of considerable beauty and mystery. It is dedicated to the memory of writer George Mackay Brown.

This would seem to be the definitive version, with Davies conducting the Royal Philharmonic in a resoundingly vivid performance.

The disk contains two bonus works, which are less formally symphonic but quite good to have nonetheless. "Time and the Raven" (1995) marks the 50th anniversary of the United Nations with some dynamic modern music and some representational collage insertions that give the work a sort of double character. Similarly "An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise" (1984) combines Davies multidimensional orchestral style with passages of rustic charm.

For the symphony and the attractive additional works this one would be an essential addition to your English modern library.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Wolfgang Rihm, Complete Works for Violin and Piano, Yang, Rimmer

Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952) has been gaining international recognition steadily as a composer of importance, and deservedly so. I am not that familiar with his chamber music, so when Naxos recently released the Complete Works for Violin and Piano (Naxos 8.572730) I jumped at the chance to hear and review it.

The complete output at this point consists of five works, written over a long period, 1972 through 2006. For this recording the considerable efforts and artistic panache of Tianwa Yang (violin) and Nicholas Rimmer (piano) were enlisted. They do a very commendable job negotiating the twists and turns of music that sometimes sounds quite difficult to play. In the process they manage to put each work in a bright, dramatic light for us to appreciate.

This is high modernist fare, fully abstract for the most part and exciting to hear.

The Phantom und Eskapade (1993/94) has a vibrant sonority and a periodicity that identifies it readily as in a concertante style.

Hekton (1972) is relatively brief but filled with turbulently invigorating sound events that demand precision and passion from the players. Yang and Rimmer handle it all with fluidity and a gracefully dynamic presence.

Antlitz (1992/93) has quiet subtlety and repose, punctuated by expressive outbursts that help frame the tenor of the work.

Eine Violinsonate (1971/75) concentrates on the violin's heroic potential to soar melodically and exultantly into realms of pitch and velocity, to enter special musical universes all its own. Like Phantom it is in concertante style, with brilliant violin writing that Tianwa Yang attacks with impressive energy and verve.

The final work, Uber die Linie VII (2006) is for violin alone. This is the world premiere recording. It has a restrained rhapsodical quality with periodic eruptions of passion. The intervals utilized and the understated yet plaintive quality give the work a sort of searching, longing quality to my ears. Once again Yang takes the work on beautifully.

Rihm is one of our most important present-day modernists and this disk shows him in an excellent light. The dedicated musicality of Yang and Rimmer bring the works alive in all the right ways. The music covers a wide period of Rihm's output. Each work is significant, essential Rihm. An impressive recording!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Anna Gourari, Canto Oscuro, Solo Piano Works by Bach-Busoni, Gubaidulina, Hindemith, Bach-Siloti

Anna Gourari brings us a full-length recital of some disparate yet organically related solo piano works on her Canto Oscuro (ECM New Series B0017622-02). At first I thought, "that's a very wide-ranging program, but why did she choose these pieces?" After listening a few times I realized that her abundant artistry, her personal intuition and creative impetus brought her to this particular combination of works.

Essentially there are four Bach pieces rearranged for piano--three by Busoni and one by Siloti--framing two pieces from the modern era, Gubaidulina's "Chaconne" and Hindemith's "1922" Suite fur Klavier.

In sandwiching two modern pieces that relate to Bach in tangential ways for the most part she causes us to reflect on Bach's timelessness--he is modern, he is not. And through her artistry she makes Gudaidulina's and Hindemith's modernism take its place alongside Bach as of a piece, following out of Bach yet not in any direct sense.

This sort of inevitability and continuity in disparity I at least felt after I listened a number of times straight through the program. The Busoni-Siloti reworkings of the Bach to greater or lesser degrees (depending on the piece) bring Bach's music genius in line with post-Lisztian pianistic expression. And Ms. Gourari handles it all wonderfully. Conversely the modern pieces are played with such singularity of vision that they sound more transcendent of the era than they might in other hands.

These are all pieces of substance. Gourari is authoritatively assured, fluid and striking in her realization of dynamics and the spectrum of touch modes she brings into the music. This is pianism of a very high caliber. This is music very much worth the effort and artistic expression she gives to them. This is a program that hangs together unusually well, showing us how Gourari can bring together an unusual sequence of works and make them fit together nearly perfectly as a whole. It's a rather glorious achievement. It is a disk I will prize for years to come and no doubt listen to again many times.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Weinberg, Symphony No. 19 "Bright May," The Banners of Peace

A peculiar thought occurred to me yesterday. If you picked your 20 all-time favorite symphonic movements and used a MIDI device to take recordings of those movements and line them up so that they all were in the same tempo, then played it back, what would it sound like? A huge cacophony I suppose. What it wouldn't sound like, I suspect, is the later symphonic music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Aside from the thickness of the musical texture of the collage, it wouldn't sound like later Weinberg because at that point he didn't quite sound like anybody. That doesn't mean that his music was avant garde. It doesn't even necessarily mean that all the later music was great. It wasn't always. But it is saying something about that music.

Along those lines we have a new recording of two such works, Symphony No. 17 "Bright May" (1985), and "The Banners of Peace" (1985) (Naxos 8.572752) with Vladimir Lande conducting the St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra. These were works Weinberg wrote when he had around 10 years left to live. No. 19 was in the sequence of a rather astonishing 26 symphony output.

The symphony was written to commemorate the anniversary of the Russian victory over German forces in World War II. It has an elegiac quality, still fits quite comfortably in the Russian modern orchestral tradition, yet sounds less directly influenced by Shostakovitch and Prokofiev that was sometimes the case in previous efforts. That is not to say that works that fall under those influences were therefore derivative in a negative way, they mostly stand on their own and some are quite brilliant. But Symphony No. 19 stands out as one of the composer's more original forays.

The sweeping largo passages, reflective, meditative, are what first strikes one about the symphony. They are rather beautiful in a bittersweet way. It is a work that does not reveal all its gifts in a single hearing.

The symphonic poem "The Banners of Peace" is less introspective, more outgoing, modern yet filled with a kind of passionate expression that puts it out of the orbit of much of the music being composed in the more "advanced" orbits at that time.

Neither work is a masterwork among masterworks. They are both high-quality Weinberg. If the themes do not jump out at you like some of his finest works, it only means that as a listener you have to work a little harder to appreciate the music. In the end it is worth your time to become familiar with them, in my opinion. Conductor Vladimir Lande gives very sympathetic interpretations of the works and the St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra shows spirit and subtlety. I am glad to have this one to return to.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Andrzej Panufnik, Votiva, Symphonic Works Volume 5

I have had the pleasure of hearing a work or two by Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) in the course of my listening, but nothing so ear-awakening as the three-work Votiva, Symphonic Works Vol. 5 (CPO 777684-2), featuring Lukasz Borowicz conducting the Konzerthausorchester Berlin.

The first two works complement each other well. His Symphony No. 7, Metasinfonia for Organ, Timpani and Strings and his Symphony No. 8, Sinfonia Votiva, both envelope the listener in long lined chromatic melodies that get situated by orchestral counter lines and harmonically advanced accompanying textures for a decidedly dramatic expression of a forward moving horizontal sort.

The Metasinfonia has a quite prominent organ part, often carrying the melody, played here quite fittingly by Jorg Strodthoff. There is a contrasting timpani part that seems to play the role of protagonist to the organ and gives the work a certain tension and dynamic that works well. Michael Oberaigner plays the part with a sort of heroic ardor that seems right. There is some impressive, advanced-dissonant organ cadenza work in the middle of the work that would no doubt work well in a gothic horror film. It gives the work additional thrust and contrast.

The Sinfonia Votiva, I read, is one of Panufnik's most performed works. It too has a long lined melodic quality, with the various orchestral soloists passing the line along in an environment of well orchestrated, vibrant symphonic expression. It has a hushed, mysterious quality throughout which is quite evocative. The work brings out each orchestral section with a poetic quality that is masterful in its realization.

Concerto Festivo rounds out the program in a decidedly more extroverted mood. There are four movements, fanfare-like in the first, alternately stately and gallopingly active in the second, lushly mysterious in the third, and briskly dynamic and colorful for the finale. It is a freshening, enlivening way to end the program, which is sum is quite an impressive testament to the performers and the composer.

These are works of originality and high expressivity. Panufnik comes through clearly here as a major symphonic voice of the modernist camp. It makes me want to hear the other four volumes in the series, but stands nobly and self-sufficiently as some essential Polish symphonic gems of the past century. Listen and enjoy.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Walter Ross, Through the Reeds: Woodwind Concerti

Gump's adage about the box of chocolates worked well in a booming economy. Today's world is like chocolates you've had before and you KNOW what you are getting, force fed or no. New music, however, really is an adventure in the unknown.

And so it was with the Walter Ross's woodwind concerti CD Through the Reeds (Ravello 7854) when I first approached it. What was I getting? Turns out Water Ross has written four concerti in a neo-classical mode that shine brightly with a lyricism that will please many.

One note for starters: the order of the concerti on the disk is not the same as listed on the label. You will listen in vain for the bassoon concerto in the second spot. It's third. Once that is clear you can settle down and listen to some very nice music.

It's all very lyrical as I've mentioned, in a post-Stravinskian mode with a distinctive American Pastoral bent (and so the title to the CD fits). Ross joins Hindemith and Reger (when Reger was in that mode) as a neo-classicist--not necessarily of their stature, one needs to hear more for that thought, but certainly of a highly engaging sort.

The four concerti--for oboe d'amore, bassoon, flute and guitar, and oboe and harp--are all played very nicely by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kirk Trevor. Soloists Sintal, Mesina, Turner, Kubrova, Fabera and Antalova all sound right and well suited for their parts.

It's the sort of music that has diatonic accessibility and high quality. It will charm those who want something nice while being pithy enough to engage more discerning listeners. Bravo.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Arvo Part, Adam's Lament

The release of new Arvo Part on ECM promises to be an event. Adam's Lament (ECM New Series B0017591-02) lives up to the promise. The Latvian Radio Choir, Vox Clamantis, Riga Sinfonietta, soloists, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, all under the direction of Tonu Kaljuste, alternate and combine in various configurations for the distinguished performance of eight recent Part choral works, some short and lovely but relatively incidental, the rest first-rate, serious works.

The title work is the longest at nearly a half-hour. It has the archaic-yet-modern quality and spiritual impact of Part at his innovative best. It is a through composed work that flows and ebbs with mystical majesty even as it suggests echoes of ancient chant.

The other works add quite nicely to the impact of the disk. There's is even a short Christmas Lullaby for a seasonal plus.

As expected the performances are impeccable, the sound of the ECM four-star sort, perfect for this kind of music.

Nothing is lacking here--another smashing Part offering. He remains one of the world's most important composers today and this CD confirms it in a spendid manner.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Jeffrey Weisner, Neomonology

Neomonology (Innova 833) furnishes a sort of 3-D portrait of the contemporary contrabass in modern concert music today. Jeffrey Weisner appears to us as an extraordinarily well-heeled (in the aesthetic sense) contrabassist, tackling with distinction three contemporary works for the instrument alone: Armando Bayolo's pomo "Mix Tape," David Smooke's "Introspection #11,072," and Michael Hersch's "Caelum Dedecoratum."

The works are less in the avant garde camp per se as they are in a post- mode. In other words they are directed more toward synthesizing the music around us, before us and behind us than they are sheer sound events.

Weisner does a fine job of it. This will appeal to lovers of the contrabass on the modern scene.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Dani and Sageev Oore, Radical Cycle

"What is an improvising duo doing on your classical blog?", someone may be asking. The answer is that Radical Cycle (Dani Oore, soprano saxophone, and Sageev Oore, piano) (self-released) are doing something most unusual. They have taken a diverse collection of art songs from the classical repertoire (by Puccini, Bartok, Ives, Berg, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, Richard Strauss) and combined them (literally), reharmonized them or altered the melody lines and improvised around them for a rather stunning continuous re-composition/re-performance. They refer to it as a "remix" though there is no manipulation of the recorded sound. All is live.

It's a genuine revelation what they do here. The musicianship and invention that went into Radical Cycle are of a very high level and very gratifying to hear. A sense of "anything can happen" comes to the forefront as one listens. Strains of klezmer mingle readily with Schumann, all kinds of disparate blends are achieved in ways that sound totally right even if they at first startle one with their novelty. The improvisational element is masterful, not referring to swing or bop musical vocabulary but achieving flow, continuity and skillfully weaving harmonic and melodic elements with a sure ear and execution.

It's music that stays with you, rather unforgettable, especially if you already know the art songs in their original form. Excellent!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Beethoven, Triple Concerto, Piano Concerto No. 3, Mari Kodama, Kent Nagano

Why, you might ask, do I sometimes cover music that is not strictly modern in a blog entitled Classical-Modern Review? Because, for one thing, I get sent music from all periods, and when something gets my ear I'll cover it.

More importantly classical music as we know it is a product of its history. A composer like Berio when he wrote presupposed and was grounded by the entire history of the music. What is today always includes yesterday. So how justifiably can I exclude it? That does not mean I should emphasize it either, and I do not.

Another thing: the classical music we hear today is ever evolving. Performance practice is always a fluid, ever evolving factor and by addressing particular performances we address what is happening now in that realm, even if as an example of only one. Performance practice has an important bearing on the music we call modern, of course, and so it is ever relevant.

Ultimately, in writing this blog I neither wish to be bored or be boring. By bringing in from time to time CDs that interest me in various ways but do not belong to the modern period I hope to mix it up in a non-snoozy manner.

So today I am addressing a recording of Beethoven concertos: the Triple Concerto and the Piano Concerto No. 3 (Berlin Classics 0300331BC), as performed by pianist Mari Kodama, violinist Kolja Blacher, cellist Johannes Moser, and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Kent Nagano.

The Triple Concerto has been in my collection many years, in multiple versions, and yet I never seem to connect with the work. Hearing the Nagano et al version, I think now I may know why. The various versions I have include as the three soloists various powerhouse virtuosi and they tend to approach their part as if it was at all times a kind of bravura spotlight for their prowess--and if they happen to be sharing that spotlight with two others, grin and bear it.

As I listen closely to the version at hand I hear something different, perhaps more in keeping with the music as Beethoven wrote it. Truth is, there is not a tremendous amount of bravura fireworks in the solo parts. Kodana, Blacher and Moser do the music justice by sounding like what they are, a piano trio juxtaposed against a symphony orchestra. They work together as such and make something happen that three virtuosi together-alone cannot. Nagano does a fine job with his end of the interpretation as well.

And so what we have is a version of the Triple Concerto that is very properly balanced between the individual soloists, the soloists as piano trio and the orchestra.

Kodama and Nagano go on to give us a version of the Third Piano Concerto that have these qualities once again, along with a very lyrical andante that is ravishing.

The music sings and is foremost in both works; the virtuosi element is there as ultimately it should be, as a means to realize the music.

In short these are excellent performances, and most certainly the most musical and balanced version of the Triple Concerto that I have heard.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Seeking & Finding: The Choral Works of Hans Bakker and Howard Richards

After nearly a week without power, phone or internet thanks to Hurricane Sandy, I am happy to be back, safe and dry.

Today a look at the choral music of Hans Bakker and Howard Richards, in a collection entitled Seeking and Finding (Navona 5877).

Neither composer is particularly well-known. Both show an affinity to and sensitivity towards the choral medium. Each contributes seven short a capella works, Bakker covering both sacred and secular subjects, Richards strictly secular.

Both work imaginatively in a tonal, modern idiom. If I had to choose I would have to say I prefer Bakker slightly over Richards. The Kuhn Choir under Marek Vorlicek do a quite reasonable job performing these works and the sound is good, matter-of-fact and not especially resonant.

All-in-all an interesting and captivating collection that should appeal to all who favor the modern choral mode.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mark Vigil, The Palest Rose

Surprises come in all sorts of ways. Today's came in the mail. The cover makes it seem like a new age album. It isn't. I am speaking of Oregon composer Mark Vigil's The Palest Rose (Ravello 7847). It's a compendium of his music for chamber aggregates and a couple for Gamelan orchestra.

I suppose you could say there's some of the impressionist in his music. There's a brightness, a lyricism, a refracted quality. It's mostly diatonic-modal, a music of tranquility yet not without vigor, quite accessible. There are three works for solo piano, the two "Fantasies for Solo Piano" have more adventurous harmonic-melodic content, a sort of modernism, than much of the other music on this disk. There are two "Trios for Flute, Viola and Harp," and a "Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Harp," all quite ravishing in a straightforward way.

The two Gamelan pieces have a Javanese sound to them. "Elizabeth" adds a woman's chorus that gives the work a more "east meets west" quality.

It's all very fetching music, skillfully crafted with an ear toward expressive simplicity, yet artful, like a Whitman's Sampler box. There are many that will find in this music a consolation for some rough days, with the touch of a genuinely talented composer. Relax and listen.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Tan Dun, Concerto for Orchestra

There is something about the work of Chinese-American composer Tan Dun. If you become familiar with one or more of his works, then hear a new one, you tend to recognize the style, and it's not that of anybody else. There is gift for orchestration. Brilliant. And sound color. There is often a traditional Chinese influence, yes, but also of the world, India, Asia in general, but truly the world. There is almost a ritual quality to his music. The listening to it a kind of rite. It's his use of space, almost ceremonial. The horizontal quality of the development. Like a turtle? Yes, except no, not that the music is especially slow to get someplace. It is the way he gets there, deliberate, movements, stops, a side turn, a pause, then movement forward again, like a turtle. And the music is always about something--about the sound, about the imagery it may evoke.

These are the thoughts I have listening to his new Naxos disk, Tan Dun conducting his Concerto for Orchestra (2012) (Naxos 8.570608) along with his "Symphonic Poem on Three Notes" (2012) and "Orchestral Theatre" (1990). The Hong Kong Philharmonic is well rehearsed and extremely sympatico with this music. These are state-of-the-art performances, certainly. And the music?

All of it stands out. There is excellent use of percussion color and a masterfully original brilliance to the orchestral presence. The music embraces often some non-Western, non-classical phrasings and tonal modes, along with a very original take on modernity. The sonic and harmonic-melodic advances in music syntax made in the past 100 years are not abandoned, nor are they simply aped. Instead they are transformed according to the inner voices of the muses that Tan Dun undoubtedly hears.

So on the "Symphonic Poems on Three Notes" we get all kinds of inventive twists and turns on a very simple three note motif. "Orchestral Theatre" is very dramatic and ritual-like, yet quite exceptional in its use of the orchestral palette.

The "Concerto for Orchestra" is in four movements, and in virtuostic fashion creates four vivid sound paintings, in Tan Duns words, a creation of his own personal "orchestra of the future" which directly engages roots as it expands outward into future horizons. The music is based in part on Tan Dun's opera Marco Polo, and manages to evoke skillfully and engagingly a journey to hitherto unknown lands in geographical and personal-experiential terms. . . the timeless markets of the East, desert India, China's Forbidden City.

In the end we have some exceptional orchestral music, brilliantly performed. Tan Dun is a marvel. He shows himself, his music well to us on this enchanted disk. Hear this one, by all means!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Paul Juon, Piano Quintet, Piano Sextet

Take a very competent composer who is also very eclectic, change one of his music parameters, and the results can be disarmingly original. That is the case with Paul Juon (1872-1940), at least with his Piano Sextet/Piano Quintet (CPO 777 507-2) in a recent recording by the Carmina Quartet and guests.

Born of German extraction, Juon grew up in Russia, showed early-on a talent for music, attended in due course the conservatory in Moscow, studying with among others Arensky, became a full professor at the Berlin College of Music some time after 1905, spent some time in prison camps during the first world war, and died in 1940 after an early retirement. Those are the biographical basics. During much of this time he composed, of course, and it is with that we are concerned today.

To return to the initial thought, Paul Juan's Piano Sextet, op. 22 and his Quintet, op. 44 are in many ways quite reminiscent of Brahm's chamber works: lushly harmonized, richly thematic, thickly scored, romantically impassioned. There is a touch now and then of a Russian flavor, especially in the themes that have a dance-like quality and are in a minor mode. If that's all there was to his music, he would be a competent, solidly craftsman-like romantic of his era, and that would be that.

But there is that important parameter alluded to above. In both these works Juon uses meter in unconventional ways. Odd meters and shifting meters are used a good deal in these works. When coupled with the sometimes stately, sometimes dance-like nature of his themes, the results are quite interesting.

The use of meters makes for a decisively novel effect upon the listener. This may be highly eclectic music in many ways, but it comes across as a music of difference.

Does that mean that Paul Juon is a forgotten master, worthy of placement on a pedestal, destined to be enshrined with the past great maters of music composition? No. Not on the basis of these compositions anyway. But with the energetic, enthusiastic treatment of the Carmina Quartet and guests Thomas Grossenbacher (cello) and Oliver Triendl (piano), we can while away 71 minutes now and then, listening to two works that manage to give pleasure and fill ones ears with music of an unusual, worthwhile sort.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

John Cage, Journeys in Sound, A Film By Allan Miller and Paul Smaczny, DVD

No artist is comprehensible in one dimension. In the case of composer John Cage this is especially so. Composer, musician, wordsmith, poet, musical philosopher, Zen Buddhist, collector of mushrooms. He has had an enormous impact on the concert music scene both during his lifetime and in the years following his death.

In celebration of Cage's 100th birthday year Accentus Music has released on DVD John Cage: Journeys in Sound (Accentus 20246), a film by Allan Miller and Paul Smaczny. It runs about an hour and is well supplemented by another 40 minutes of concert footage of 4'33'', Water Music, a Constructions percussion work, and a Sonata for Prepared Piano.

The film wisely does not attempt to be comprehensive but instead covers illustrative vignettes on his life experience, philosophy and music through interviews with Cage, his friends and associates, musicologists, fellow composers, musicians, along with excerpts from musical performances and miscellaneous archive footage.

A true-to-life picture emerges of the man and his music, the importance of chance and sheer sound to his compositions, his openess to the unexplored and his brilliant creativity, his huge impact on contemporary aesthetics and his controversial status even today.

It does all this with artistry and grace. It is a most fitting and sympathetic tribute to the man who changed the face of music in the last century.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

John Cage, Indeterminacy, Susanne Kessel

The original recording of John Cage's Indeterminacy came out as a two LP set on Folkways some time, I believe, in the late '50s. The piece, then and now, centers around a series of short, mostly autobiographical texts penned by Cage (and for that recording recited by him) describing his music, incidents in everyday life and Zen moments of one kind or another. It was performed simultaneously with "Solo for Piano" (1958), the solo part from his "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra" and his electronic work "Fontana Mix" (1958). David Tudor played the piano part for the recording.

Pianist Susanne Kessel and recitator Joachim Krol have created a new version of the work (Oehm Classics OC 855) as part of the celebration of John Cage's 100th birth year. The individual text vignettes have been translated into German by Martin Erdmann and Krol reads from them in an order dictated by chance.

Susanne Kessel realizes the piano part with imagination and sensitivity. The part itself calls for a good bit of musical decision-making on the part of the performer and Kessel creates a version that is stylistically exploratory and timbrally diverse, via playing conventionally and inside the piano in various ways. Both the piano part and the electronic score are present in the audio mix at various times according to a chance operation set in motion by Susanne Kessel.

In the end there are various moments in the performance where the recitation (in German) proceeds by itself, where it is joined by parts from either "Solo for Piano" or "Fontana Mix," or in some cases both.

The piano part is angular and abstract as is the electro-acoustical sound piece. They weave in and out of the recording against a constant wave of recitation.

I have become quite familiar with the original recording. This version rivals the original in every way. The piano realization is different enough, and entrance and exits of both it and "Fontana Mix" vary with the recitation as to make it a new variant of the work, and of course the text, well-performed in German by actor Joachim Krol, gives the aural experience a different dimension.

Those familiar with German will get all the gentle humor and irony contained in Cage's text. Those who are not will experience it as a third part of the abstract sound event.

In the end Indeterminacy well represents Cage's middle period, where he first confronts composing and performing according to the dictates of chance operations. It is not perhaps in the ranks of Cage's most essential works. The performance at hand has the advantage of a state-of-the-art digital sonic staging over the original recording. Susan Kessel's realization of the piano part is excellent, and certainly rivals that of David Tudor's.

After all these years, this is a work that is still as avant garde as it is stubbornly wayward. It still no doubt may perplex, frustrate, even anger unprepared listeners. But for those initiated into the Cagean philosophy and manner of presentation, it remains a piece to fascinate and intrigue.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Leo Ornstein, Piano Music Volume One

There were a handful of composers who at the turn of the century or so pushed late romantic piano music off the deep end through an extreme, edgy chromaticism, augmented-diminished intervals, fourths, and a music that touched the limits of tonality and went beyond. There was Scriabin, the Ives of the "Concord Sonata," Sorabji, Prokofiev, and there was Leo Ornstein. Funny thing about the latter though, is that he managed to live 109 years, passing away only in 2002, and was actively composing up until 1980! He lived to see modernism triumphant, and an era that followed where the time was ripe for his revival.

There were his years as the avant composer in the limelight, mostly the '20s, then the many years of relative obscurity, through to the day before yesterday. And here we are today of course, in a good position to hear his music again, to appreciate it anew.

Pianist Arsentiy Kharitonov and Toccata Classics look as if they are going to redress the years of relative neglect in a series of recordings dedicated to his work. We have the first installment, Piano Music, Volume One (Toccata Classics 0141).

Three of the works presented here are first recordings: the "Four Impromptus," s300A (1950s-76), "In the Country" s63 (1924) and "Cossack Impressions" s55 (c. 1912). There is also his "Piano Sonata No. 4," s360 (c.1918).

Not all of this is the "bad boy" modernism for which he became most known. All of it has an impressive pianism, a tempestuous quality, a conception of the piano as an orchestra unto itself and a heroic virtuosity. His Russian roots show through brightly as well.

There are some breathtaking moments and a consistently high level of musicianship on the first volume, thanks to Ornstein's brilliance and the very appropriate pianistic fireworks of Arsentiy Kharitonov. A great start! Bravo!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Harvey Sollberger, Spillville & Gilead, Red Cedar Chamber Music

Harvey Sollberger came out of Columbia with an MA in the heady days when New Music was as au courant as the space race. He co-founded the acclaimed Group for Contemporary Music with Charles Wuorinen and recorded prolifically with them. He went on to direct the La Jolla Symphony for many years. His time spent as conductor, flautist and teacher left a little room for work as a composer. His earlier works came out on CRI and I remember liking them, but I have not heard anything of his recent music. That is until now.

There's a new release by Red Cedar Chamber Music (58016) of two of Sollberger's recent works that's getting my attention. Spillville & Gilead present two somewhat lengthy chamber compositions that celebrate his love of the Midwest, "Spillville" (2006) for flute, viola and guitar, and "Perhaps Gilead" (2010) for flute, guitar, and string quartet.

The two pieces relate well to each other, both in subject matter and sonance, and are well played by the Red Cedar musicians. Both present a kind of Americana pastoralism, with reworkings of folk dance and traditional fiddle tune sounds coming into the musical picture at important points.

It's music that addresses elemental intervalic relationships, modalities and homespun melodic material in very effective ways. This Sollberger manages to do without sounding like Aaron Copland, which of course is who one first thinks of with music of this sort.

More modern tonalities weave their way in and out of "Perhaps Gilead," less so for "Spillville," but most importantly all elements come together in these compositions as an organic whole, in ways that leave a distinct impression.

This is music of high local color with a singleness of intent that shows originality and great evocative power. The two works stand together as very agreeable examples of a thoroughgoing post-modernism that Charles Ives would certainly recognize and appreciate. I think you will too.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Paul Lewis, Schubert, Works for Piano, Vol. 2

When Paul Lewis played the concluding notes to this project, a collection of the significant later Schubert piano works, he must have known that he had nailed it. Because in the second, concluding installment, Schubert, Works for Piano, Vol.2 (Harmonia Mundi), that is exactly what he has done.

It's a phenomenal performance, with Maestro Lewis driving down to the core, the essence of these pieces, in a series of penetrating interpretations, some of the best ever. His abundant technique enables him to take some pieces at a rollicking clip, tackling the rapid passagework when it comes with an exciting exuberance, and always with the joy of bringing out the special quality of each piece, with deep understanding of and affection for the music.

That's the impression I got listening to these fine performances. It's some of Schubert's most compelling piano music: including the Wandererfantasie, 4 Impromptus D.935, Sonata no.16, and the 6 Moments Musicaux Op.94.

This is landmark Schubert pianism. Lewis triumphs with the passion and insight of a poet. These are performances to stir the senses and warm the heart. Schubert himself would be proud, I think. Can you tell I like this one?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Paradigms: New Sounds for the Modern Orchestra

We live in a time in the arts that cannot yet be captured by one word. It is most certainly "the period after" what came before, but what is that? It is only to say that it is today, not yesterday. Is that necessarily a bad thing? In the field of new music one thing positive about it is that there is no "cultural police" dictating what one must create, no special "out" or "in" group. Oh I suppose you could single out loosely grouped coteries with certain stylistic affinities: high modernists, post-modernists, minimalists, those that create music that could be termed neo-early, neo-classical, or neo-romantic, and of course the avant garde lives on, and so forth, but no one group dominates. What it means to the listener is that there is a wide variety of styles in play in the music being created right now. That's probably healthy and it certainly gives the music lover much to choose from.

With that in mind we look at the new anthology Paradigms: New Sounds for the Modern Orchestra (Navona 5880). Here we have six recent compositions, convincingly played by the Slovak Radio Symphony under Robert Black, and the Moravian Philharmonic under Petr Vronsky, respectively.

There are composers attached to these works that you might not have heard of: Warren Gooch, Rain Worthington, Howard Quilling, Allen Brings, Paula Diehl, and Joseph Koykkar. Yet they are a talented bunch, each providing a work that shows mastery of craft and creative spark.

If you were to try and label the music, it is primarily post- and neo- with some shades of modernism thrown in for good measure. All of the works make convincing statements, make good use of the orchestra as an instrument of color and contrast, and sound contemporary.

The musical as a whole typifies an aspect of the contemporary orchestral scene and does it with some very good, very listenable new music.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Valentin Silvestrov, Sacred Songs

Sacred Songs (ECM New Series B0017359-02) looks at Ukranian composer Valentin Silvestrov's very original choral work while celebrating his 75th birthday year.

It is music that retains something of the sonic world of Russian Orthodox liturgical chant but remakes it all for today with pedal tone suspensions underpinning elaborate, sequential melody lines that have a decidedly modern harmonic-mystical tang to them.

The music unfolds with an internal logical and yet explores sacred ambiances with a kind of passion that nods to tradition while making brilliant use of contemporary melodic-harmonic possibilities in a directly communicating way.

Like Arvo Part, Silvestrov references early music without hearkening back to it, creating in the process his own unmistakably original, engaging music.

The Kiev Chamber Choir under Mykola Hobdych sound angelic. The reverberant cathedral space that serves as the setting for the recording adds atmosphere and sets off the aurally striking music perfectly. A ravishing recording!